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'Hollywood On The Potomac': New Book Captures D.C. On Film

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Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) and Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) leave the Library of Congress after researching information on the Watergate burglars in All the President’s Men.
Mike Canning
Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) and Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) leave the Library of Congress after researching information on the Watergate burglars in All the President’s Men.

This weekend marks a momentous occasion for Hollywood, as stars of the silver screen gather in Los Angeles for the 85th Academy Awards. Among the various contenders in different categories, there will be a handful of films — Argo, Lincoln, and Zero Dark Thirty, among them — that cast the nation's Capitol in somewhat of a starring role.

Mike Canning, author of the newly released book "Hollywood on the Potomac: How the Movies View Washington, D.C.," says it's becoming somewhat of a growing trend.

"In my own research about movies made in D.C., or about D.C., [in] the last 20 years, a Washington genre has grown up, because 80 to 85 Hollywood movies have been shot here on and off in that time," he says.

District a headache for filmmakers

In the book, Canning points out that despite the plethora of D.C.-based or D.C.-inspired movies, the District is not an easy place for a crew to shoot a commercial film.

First, there's negotiating around the various jurisdictions: executive, congressional and local. Second, D.C. just doesn't offer the financial incentives that other cities, such as Baltimore or Richmond, have typically offered film productions. And third, there is, of course, the security issue.

Security has a lot to do with the current boundaries for filming the Capitol Building in a commercial film. On the east side, the closest you can get is 3rd Street Southeast and East Capitol.

"While cars can drive down East Capitol and be shot," Canning says, "basically action takes place right at this point."

Examples of scenes shot from this spot include several in The Seduction of Joe Tynan, a 1978 film starring Alan Alda: they "used one of the rooms inside the Folger Library for a senator's office," Canning says.

And across the street, there are some buildings that have been featured in more recent films. "The large one is the John Jay Building on East Capitol and the 300 block where Clint Eastwood climbed up on the roof to chase John Malkovich, the villain in In The Line of Fire in 1993," Canning points out. "It's very evident when you see it, because you can see the background of the Supreme Court and the Capitol.

"Just next to it is an apartment building called the Colcord, which was the site of Annette Benning's apartment in The American President from 1995: a Rob Reiner film with an Aaron Sorkin script.

"That's where she lived and where she had trouble getting to the President's house in a cab via Dupont Circle," Canning says with a laugh. "Typical Washington goof!"

Hollywood takes liberties with local geography

Speaking of goofs and gaffes in D.C. films, Canning says his favorite is from the 1987 action movie, No Way Out, starring Kevin Costner.

"There's a sequence where he's in a chase, from the Pentagon to Georgetown, where he's trying to warn a woman who's going to be assassinated," Canning recounts. "He and the assassins are coming across the Whitehurst Freeway, and he stops their car. He jumps over the Whitehurst Freeway Bridge down onto K Street, which is correct, and he runs in and around Georgetown, and he runs on the C&O Canal Route, all very effectively and rather with verisimilitude. That's basically where you would go, trying to get to this woman's office.

"And then the kicker is he comes off the C&O Canal, up some steps, into the Georgetown Metro. Anybody who lives here knows there is no, and has never been, pointedly, a Georgetown Metro!"

When Canning first saw the film in a Washington theater, he remembers, "the audience went nuts. One guy threw popcorn at the screen because it was so ludicrous!"

But the gaffe doesn't end there. Canning says when Costner's character comes down the Metro escalator, "he enters the Baltimore Metro, because they would not allow shooting in the D.C. Metro in those days. The Metro was established in 1976, but even after 10 years they said, no shooting in the Metro.

"And then he ends up running around, escaping these guys in Baltimore and he comes up in a totally different mall in another part of Washington which doesn't have a Metro stop either.

"The whole sequence is just a hilarious goof and one of the best!"

[Music: "Washington, D.C." by The Nighttime Adventure Society from Chapter One: The First Chapter]

Photos: Hollywood on the Potomac


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